2023 Toyota Highlander Review

2023 Toyota Highlander - Highlander hybrid boosts fuel economy


The popular, five-door, mid-size Highlander crossover returns with minor refinements in 2023 while building upon 25 years of Toyota’s industry-leading gas-electric hybrid technology.

This current 2023 tester’s platform is based upon Highlander’s fourth-generation effort welcomed in the 2020 model year.  Highlander represents one of the earlier five-door mid-size hatchbacks to market built from a smoother-riding, car-type uni-body platform; not the truck-like body-on-frame bouncy ball prevalent at the time. Highlander’s underpinnings handle on-road challenges with ease, but it’s not the deep-woods, off-road choice.

It’s also one of the first five-door crossovers introducing a gas-electric hybrid variant. During the past couple of years, hybrid versions accounted for a quarter of Highlander sales in the U.S., due largely to the generous 35 miles per gallon combined city/highway estimates. With 2.4 inches of wheelbase (distance between front and rear axle) added in 2020, Highlander Hybrid skews towards the larger end of mid-size crossover-dom.

The 2023 Highlander Hybrid also brings along three rows of standard seating applicable for growing families, although only tinier tots find the three-passenger third-row passable.  Minimal updates from 2022 include an upgraded infotainment screen/system. Popular Smartphone applications (Android Auto, Apple CarPlay) come standard.

This popular crossover debuted in 2001 powered solely by an internal-combustion engine.  It didn’t take long for Toyota, the world-leader in gas-electric hybrid sales, to welcome aboard a fuel extending, higher-mileage hybrid version just five years later. Both now offer the choice between front wheel and electronic on-demand all-wheel drive.

For those shoppers not yet comfortable taking the plunge into the Electric Vehicle pool, yet seek an environmentally-friendly choice with excellent fuel economy, gas-electric hybrids offer a great segue. Unlike EVs or plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs), gas-electric hybrids require no nightly wall socket plug in or investments in a higher-speed Level 2, 240-volt wall charger.  Highlander Hybrid self-charges its advanced, on-board battery pack. 

This compact, sealed nickel metal hydride battery pack fits snuggly under the rear seat, clearing the way for uniform seating and cargo volume on par with conventional gas-powered versions. One advantage nickel metal hydride packs provide for us Midwesterners is superior performance during extreme cold temperatures when compared against lighter weight lithium-ion varieties utilized in most PHEVs, EVs and ubiquitous hand-held Smartphones. Toyota utilized nickel metal hydride for years in its popular Prius gas-electric hybrid and also in the 2023 Tundra hybrid full-size pickup.

Helping motivate this vehicle: a 2.5-liter double overhead cam four-cylinder engine delivering 186 horses.  When teamed with battery power and two electric motor generators, combined horsepower reaches a workable 243.  Both connect up with an electronically-controlled, on-demand Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT), a design prioritizing fuel economy over drag-race-style performance. Recommended 87-octane fuel fills the good-sized 17.1-gallon tank. Highlander hybrid delivers with 35 miles per gallon city and 34 mpg highway when teamed with all-wheel drive.

Five 2023 hybrid trims include Bronze, LE Limited, Platinum and XLE. Each include three drive modes (normal, eco, sport) selectable via a button between the front buckets next to vertical in-line beverage holders.  An all-EV mode/button is also nearby, allowing all-electric propulsion at very low speeds along with a traction control deactivation button.

Seating capacity equals seven or eight depending upon the selected trim.  Base LE includes a standard second row three-passenger split bench welcoming eight riders.  Our top-trim Platinum tester included two second-row Captain’s Chairs with floor/aisle space in between each and a seven-rider capacity.  All other trims offer a bench standard and Captain’s Chairs optional.

Well-engineered Captain’s Chairs easily glide forward and aft with the gentle touch of only one hand with no frustrating resistance and a nicely engineered tilt-and-slide design creating an aisle-like entry way into row three.  Large side doors open a welcoming egress and ingress experience into row two.  The decent-sized third-row floor aisle allowed this trepid reporter access to the way-back area with mixed results. As mentioned earlier, the trio of travels best measure as pre-teens or lilliputian adults as head and leg room are limited.

Our Platinum AWD trim came well equipped with a $52,425 starting price. The only factory extras were side running boards ($599) useful for younger tykes, but full-size adults can easily handle the eight inches of ground clearance.  A half-dozen dealer extras brought the bottom line to $55,647 after a $1,335 destination charge.

Highlander hybrids starts at $40,220 in 2023 for an LE trim sporing front-wheel drive The lowest-priced gasoline Highlander (a front-wheel drive ‘L’ trim) starts $4,000 less.

Highlander hybrid’s interior looks and feels similar to its gas-exclusive counterpart save for the digital instrument panel, with hybrid-specific indicators including a left-side orb detailing the battery state (Eco, Power, Charge) and other information selectable from the multi-panel center region.   The interior’s upscale, modern feel interior is found in all trims even the base Bronze. Our Platinum tester included a tri-color look with tan, soft-touch leatherette shaping the dashboard’s lower portion.  The black upper birth includes brushed aluminum accents. Tan/black combinations join doors and seats too.

Both the conventional and hybrid Highlander opt for a modern, exterior design.  Taillights borrow a boomerang-like design hugging together the hatch door and rear fenders with red, three-dimensional undertones. Hints of Highlander’s fuel-extending underpinning are found on the on Toyota’s T logo which includes blue hues interspersed within the circular logo to indicate ‘hybrid’.

High side belt lines contribute to narrow side windows, shrinking even more when passing the rearward C pillar.  It’s an aggressive design, with driver’s blind spots minimally impacted despite the band-like width.  A second side character line starts in back at the taillight edge, eventually swooping down through the side doors in a roller coaster-like fashion.

Two flat, touch-sensitive multi-function screen sizes include either an 8.0-inch or 12.3-inch depending upon trim level.  Our tester included the larger 12.3-inch size (in Platinum and Limited trims), boasting a flat screen format with the upper portion jetting up slightly from the dash top. Most commands work though the touch format with a volume/on-off knob far right (and a stretch for the driver).  Secondary steering wheel volume and pre-set selections speed the process.  On a scale of 1 to 10, user friendliness hits at about a six. 

Below the screen resides two horizontal air vents, separating the screen from the HVAC section with a plethora of push and toggle buttons off set by two prominent, large dials control dual front temperatures.   A convenient, hammock-like wireless flat charge pad resides below assisting compatible Smartphones.  Below that,  standard plug ports and 12-volt outlet.

Start up this hybrid and sounds of silence abound as the two electric motors/generators largely handle low-speed crawls.  The internal-combustion gas engine kicks in at higher speeds. Fuel is saved at extended stops since the engine temporarily halts until the gas foot pedal receives aggressive direction. This vehicle also benefits from regenerative braking technology, where friction energy created through the normal braking process gets battery stored for later reuse. 

Highlander and Highlander Hybrid currently assembles next door in the Hoosier State along the southern edges in Princeton, Indiana, a facility operational since 1998.  Toyota Motors Manufacturing, Indiana (TMMI) also assembles the family-friendly Sienna minivan (a gas-electric hybrid version started rolling in 2021).

While many other rival crossovers (Kia Sorento, Honda Civic) offer hybrid powertrains, Highlander benefits from more than two-decades of Toyota leadership in this category.  Toyota’s well-earned reputation for build quality carries forward in Highlander Hybrid and interior materials, including the dashboard, include a high-quality look and feel.

Another Plus: Toyota Safety Sense 2.5, a suite of standard safety features in most Toyota products.  This package includes pre-collision detection with pedestrian detection, full-speed automatic radar cruise control, lane departure alert with steering assist, automatic high beams and lane tracing assist. Highlander adds Road Sign Assist displaying speed limit, stop and other warning signs in the multi-function display screen or heads-up windshield display if equipped.

As with all recently introduced Toyota models, ToyotaCare also comes standard, offering two years (or 25,000 miles) of complimentary maintenance covering factory scheduled items (oil changes, tire rotation) along with 24/7 roadside assistance. It’s an added value at no extra cost providing an extra level of peace of mind.

Price as tested: $55,647
Gas engine: 2.5-liter four cylinder
Total system horsepower: 243
Wheelbase: 112.2 inches
Total Length: 194.9 inches
Total Height: 68.1 inches
Total Width: 76 inches
Hybrid battery warranty: 10 years/150,000 miles
Mileage estimates: 35 mpg city/34 mpg highway
Assembly: Princeton, Indiana

Dave Boe

Dave Boe, a lifetime Chicago area resident, worked at the Daily Herald, Illinois' third-largest daily newspaper, for 24 years. In 1989, the Daily Herald began a weekly Saturday Auto Section and he was shortly appointed editor. The product quickly grew into one of the largest weekend sections in the paper thanks to his locally-written auto reviews, the introduction of a local automotive question-and-answer column, a new colorful format and news happenings from Chicago area new-car dealerships.

Five years later, a second weekly auto section debuted on Mondays with Boe adding an industry insight column and introducing a "Love Affair with Your Car" column where readers sent in their own automotive memories for publication. During the next 10 years, the number of weekly auto sections Boe edited and coordinated grew to five and featured expanded NASCAR racing coverage, a dealer spotlight/profile feature and a Car Club Calendar where grass-roots automobile clubs could publish upcoming events for free. Boe also introduced more local automotive columnists into the pages of the sections, all of whom were seasoned members of the well respected Midwest Automotive Media Association. In 1997, Boe earned the Employee of the Year award from the Daily Herald.

Boe is a founding member and current president of the Midwest Automotive Media Association. He has degrees in Journalism and Business Administration from Northern Illinois University.